REVIEW: ‘A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley’ by Neal Thompson

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripleyby Neal Thompson

Three Rivers Press, ISBN: 978-0770436223

Copyright June 2014, Paperback, 432 Pages


A Curious Man is a phenomenally entertaining and engrossing biography of LeRoy Robert Ripley. The author ingeniously and skillfully treats readers to streams of captivating anecdotes from cover to cover. Thompson comprehensively traced Ripley’s life from his humble beginnings in hometown Santa Rosa, a childhood marked by tragedy of parental death and the Great San Francisco Earthquake, his incredibly bumpy journey as a cartoonist, to ultimately building his Believe It or Not franchise into an empire, and assembling extraordinary wealth.

It was utterly fascinating to witness the evolution of the Believe It or Not franchise and brand, along with its creator. Being an onlooker of seemingly “inexplicable” extreme religious behaviors, poverty, and hunger in Ripley’s very first travel assignment, his Believe It or Not cartoons began to incorporate elements of gruesomeness, and started to reflect his fascination with the “demented, delusioned, diseased, and devout.” His brand enjoyed further solidification as he got credited for the first transatlantic cartoon transmission while he was on an England assignment to cover the Derby race. Generating uproar with cartoons of Lindbergh, “The Marching Chinese”, and George Washington earned Ripley both notoriety, and his very first speaking invitations. His burgeoning popularity led to the coining of “Riplianism” expressing people’s “fascination with the apparently untrue facts of life,” and followers who started calling themselves “Bonfans” or “Rip-O-Maniacs.” The Odditorium exhibition was launched, and the brand continued to expand into realms such as radio and theater.

Routinely compared to Marco Polo, Ripley’s highly coveted travel stories fill countless pages within the book. Surprises lurk in virtually every page. Following Ripley’s voyage to foreign countries and continents, and aboard the Laconia, the SS Santa Luisa, the SS Mariposa, and the SS President Cleveland, readers are entertained with diverse narratives. In one trip, Ripley traveled to Hilo and Honolulu in Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Manila, and Benares, Delhi and Calcutta in India, then to Jerusalem, Paris, Rome, and Canton. In another, Ripley’s Ramble ‘Round South America trip was announced in promotional ads in Associated Newspapers. He traveled to the Peruvian town of Juliaca, the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, the city of La Paz in Bolivia, Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brazil. In a following journey, he visited Iceland, Scandinavia, and the small village of Hell in Norway.

As his fame grew, and as newspaper publisher giant William Randolph Hearst employed Ripley to work for King Features, Ripley started traveling with an entourage. They visited Suva. Ripley gave lectures and attended meetings with editors in Sydney. Together, they went to New Guinea, Bali, Singapore, and Bangkok. Ripley visited war-torn Shanghai, Nanking, Peiping, Dairen, war-shredded Mukden, and the Korean city of Pusan. In yet another expedition, Ripley went to Khartoum, Juba, and Nairobi, traveled to Mombasa, Zanzibar and Maputo, and then to Swaziland, Durban, Russia, and Finland. A separate voyage was made to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. It goes on.

Thompson filled the book with signposts that signal the ever burgeoning success of the Believe It or Not franchise. Beginning with Ripley’s humble incorporation of the WWI theme predominantly into his cartoons that featured patriotism and pro-athleticism, and the use of his wartime sketches as recruitment posters, he earned approving letters to the editor. Ripley’s triumph gained momentum as he signed a book contract with the publishing house Simon & Schuster, resulting in the creation of the Believe It or Not book that finished the year ranked among 1929’s top sellers. His success snowballed and was followed by bidding wars between RKO and Warner Bros., and between radio networks. They led to the signing of a vaudeville contract with Warner Bros., and another contract with the National Broadcasting Company’s Red Network. Ripley also appeared in his first-ever film.

The avid reception of Ripley’s debut Odditorium exhibition was followed by yet another half-million-dollar success the following year. In further evidence of his social status, a nationwide survey conducted in spring of 1936 showed that boys overwhelmingly preferred Ripley’s job over other notable public figures. Ripley’s personal brand and his franchise continued to grow alongside the development of his radio career with shows such as Baker’s Broadcast, See America First with Bob Ripley, Rhythm, Romance, and Ripley that featured war stories during WWII, Scramble where Ripley lent his voice to the aviation community, and a radio show sponsored by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs Office (CIAA), the US government.

Ripley’s personal commentary throughout his travels ranged from humorous, forthright, philosophical, and reflective, to wry, cynical, and unempathetic. A narrative feast, Ripley was said to blunder ahead to Canton in blatant disregard of the forbidding advice of extreme danger, and of the U.S. Consul‘s denial of permission to visit, in an impulse to entertain his fantasies of being a war correspondent.

Ripley candidly expressed disappointment when the “alleged site of the Garden of Eden” in Iraq turned out to be merely “a barren patch on the banks of the Euphrates.” He perceived Benares to be the epicenter for the extremes of Hindu spirituality, rural Iraq a land “where ancient history is written in sweat and blood, where life is mixed with horror,” and Baghdad as “a man’s town, the most masculine place I have ever seen.”

Thompson fully displayed Ripley’s increasingly flamboyant indulgence and gestures of wealth. Ripley paid $85,000 for an island and named it BION Island; He purchased the Mon Lei, an eastern vessel. Ripley wallowed in his compulsive collector’s habits; He filled his mansion with innumerable foreign oddities, and covered nearly every inch of floor space in “thick rugs from India, China, Turkey, and Persia.” He converted his mansion into his “personal Odditorium”, and held sumptuous parties on his island. Despite his immense wealth, Ripley failed in his attempt to buy a Mexican volcano.

Ripley’s “impeccable” publicity instincts contributed largely to his success. He figured that the Mon Lei could double as “colorful Believe It or Not publicity campaigns.” Ripley unabashedly took full credit for all Believe It or Not ideas, neglected to credit his witty sidekick, and reinforced himself as the fact-wielding authority. He capitalized on the ensuing notoriety and publicity from proclaiming controversial and provocative statements in his cartoons, such as “America Has No National Anthem,” and “St. Patrick was neither a Catholic, a saint, nor an Irishman! And his name was not Patrick!”

Ripley similarly ignited a political firestorm that doubled as self-publicity, as he made public the denial of his visa application to enter Siberia, and the U.S. secretary of state’s subsequent indifference towards his appeal. He aptly attempted to seize the opportunity to stoke the anti-Communist theme, and to explore possible anti-Communist radio broadcasts. At other times, he gained publicity without deliberate efforts. He was surprised when he got elected to the distinguished Royal Geographic Society of London for his relentless global explorations.”

Readers will also cherish the opportunity to gain an intimate look at Ripley’s magnificent artistic journey. Referred to as a “self-taught ethnographer and anthropologist”, Ripley vigorously tended to his eccentric inquisitiveness. He developed a fascination with religious fanaticism and concluded that “the strangest places on earth are the holiest.” He was enchanted by disfiguration, and perceived the disfigured as “the ultimate underdogs.” WWI inspired Ripley to present readers with dramatic life-and-death scenarios, and his scrapbook clippings reflected the postwar fascination with dangerous places and extreme activities.

Additional absurdities sprinkle the book, of course, as Ripley was sued by his companion, Haru Onuki, on the accusation that he broke his promise to marry her. She sought $500,000 in damages.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.


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